What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Red and white Clover, Red Top and Herds Grass Seed, warranted to be of last Year’s Growth.”
Compared to their male counterparts, women who pursued their own businesses placed advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers much less frequently. Even though they comprised a sizeable minority of shopkeepers in urban ports, they tended not to inject themselves into the marketplace via the public prints.
For one type of female entrepreneur, however, that changed, at least temporarily, in Boston for several weeks in late winter and early spring in the 1760s. Women who specialized in selling seeds placed advertisements in Boston’s newspapers and competed with each other for customers as the time for planting gardens approached.
Consider the March 9, 1767, issues of the Boston-Gazette. Susanna Renken’s advertisement appeared on the first page. Notices placed by four other female seed sellers (and one male competitor who, unlike the women, described his occupation as “Gardener”) filled almost an entire column on the final page of the supplement devoted solely to advertising. Just as Renken stated in her advertisement, Bethiah Oliver, Elizabeth Clark, Lydia Dyar, and Elizabeth Greenleaf noted that they imported seeds from London and listed the varieties they stocked. Each had advertised the previous year as well.
Clark, Dyar, and the appropriately named Greenleaf confined their advertising to seeds, but Renken also promoted “all Sorts of English GOODS and China Ware” and Oliver stocked “a general Assortment of Glass, Delph and Stone Ware, Lynn Shoes, best Bohea Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, and all other Groceries.” Their advertisements suggest that Renken and Oliver ran operations much more extensive than peddling seeds, which may explain why those two also inserted advertisements in the Boston Post-Boy on the same day. Clark, Dyar, and Greenleaf may have also stocked various imported housewares and groceries, despite not making an indication in their own advertisements. None of these five women who ran advertisements for the seeds they sold in successive springs, however, placed advertisements at other times during the year.
What explains the prominence of advertisements by women selling seeds amid the scarcity of advertising by other women in colonial Boston’s marketplace? Why did the women in this occupation turn to advertising when other women who operated other sorts of businesses did not? Why did Renken and Oliver only advertise their other wares at the conclusion of their advertisements for seeds and not in separate advertisements throughout the rest of the year? These advertisements demonstrate women’s activity in the marketplace as sellers, not just consumers, but they also raise a series of questions about the limits of that participation captured in print during the period.